5. Capital Waste. While there’s plenty of ongoing annual operating waste, there’s also a special kind of profligacy—call it capital waste—that pops up year after year. This is shoddy spending on big-ticket items that don’t pan out. While what’s being bought changes from year to year, you can be sure there will always be some costly items that aren’t worth what the government pays for them.
Take this recent example: Since September 11, 2001, Congress has spent more than $4 billion to upgrade the Coast Guard’s fleet. Today the service has fewer ships than it did before that money was spent, what 60 Minutes called “a fiasco that has set new standards for incompetence.” Then there’s the Future Imagery Architecture spy satellite program. As The New York Times recently reported, the technology flopped and the program was killed—but not before costing $4 billion. Or consider the FBI’s infamous Trilogy computer upgrade: Its final stage was scrapped after a $170 million investment. Or the almost $1 billion the Federal Emergency Management Agency has wasted on unusable housing. The list goes on.
Wasteful Capital Spending: $30 billion
Running Tab: $657.5 billion + $30 billion = $687.5 billion
6. Fraud and Stupidity. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) wants the Social Security Administration to better monitor the veracity of people drawing disability payments from its $100 billion pot. By one estimate, roughly $1 billion is wasted each year in overpayments to people who work and earn more than the program’s rules allow.
The federal Food Stamp Program gets ripped off too. Studies have shown that almost 5 percent, or more than $1 billion, of the payments made to people in the $30 billion program are in excess of what they should receive.
One person received $105,000 in excess disability payments over seven years.
There are plenty of other examples. Senator Coburn estimates that the feds own unused properties worth $18 billion and pay out billions more annually to maintain them. Guess it’s simpler for bureaucrats to keep paying for the property than to go to the trouble of selling it.
General Fraud and Stupidity: $2 billion (disability and food stamp overpayment)
Running Tab: $687.5 billion + $2 billion = $689.5 billion
7. Pork Sausage. Congress doled out $29 billion in so-called earmarks—aka funds for legislators’ pet projects—in 2006, according to Citizens Against Government Waste. That’s three times the amount spent in 1999. Congress loves to deride this kind of spending, but lawmakers won’t hesitate to turn around and drop $500,000 on a ballpark in Billings, Montana.
The most infamous earmark is surely the “bridge to nowhere”—a span that would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to nearby Gravina Island—at a cost of more than $220 million. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Senator Coburn tried to redirect that money to repair the city’s Twin Span Bridge. He failed when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle got behind the Alaska pork. (That money is now going to other projects in Alaska.) Meanwhile, this kind of spending continues at a time when our country’s crumbling infrastructure—the bursting dams, exploding water pipes and collapsing bridges—could really use some investment. Cutting two-thirds of the $29 billion would be a good start.
Pork Barrel Spending: $20 billion
Running Tab: $689.5 billion + $20 billion = $709.5 billion
*All figures are estimates.